Japan set to return to nuclear power after 2-year hiatus

TOKYO - Japan is set to restart a mothballed nuclear reactor for the first time in two years on Tuesday, the operator said, as anti-atomic sentiment still runs high following the 2011 Fukushima crisis.

The reactor No. 1 at the Sendai nuclear plant, nearly 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) southwest of Tokyo, has been loaded with atomic fuel and its operator announced Monday the reactor would be running by 10:30 am (0130 GMT) Tuesday.

The 31-year-old reactor was expected to reach full operating capacity by "around 11:00 pm" Tuesday, a Kyushu Electric Power spokeswoman said.

The restart comes four and a half years after a quake-sparked tsunami triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, prompting the shutdown of the country's stable of reactors.

Japan, which once relied on nuclear power for a quarter of its electricity, restarted two reactors temporarily to feed the resource-poor country's needs. But they both went offline by September 2013, making the country completely nuclear-free for about two years.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is keen to get them back up and running, as are the power companies that own them, fed up with having to make up lost generating capacity with pricey fossil fuels.

But Japan's people are sceptical and the country remains deeply scarred by Fukushima, which forced tens of thousands of people from their homes.

Safety officials have stressed that the reactors are going to operate under much tighter regulations than those that existed before Fukushima, the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

But public sentiment remains largely against a return to nuclear power.

On Monday about 400 protesters rallied in front of the Sendai plant, which is on the southern tip of Japan's Kyushu island.

"I can never tolerate this," one demonstrator told local television.

"I cannot stand they are resuming the reactor when the Fukushima nuclear accident remains far from being solved."

Last month, the central government notified Naraha, a Fukushima town, that it will lift the evacuation order that has been in place since the 2011 disaster.

Its 7,400 citizens will be the first evacuees to be able to return home permanently among seven municipalities where the entire population was ordered to leave.

However, Naraha evacuees have mixed feelings about going back to their hometown due to concerns over radiation and lack of medical care, and it was not clear how many of them would return.

The compensation costs of Fukushima, separate from the cash necessary for decommissioning the reactors, has reached at least US$57 billion (S$79 billion) and is expected to increase.

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